8-25-02, 7:35 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Offensive captain Willie Anderson wasn't pleased with some of his skill players after Saturday night's odd 552-yard night that ended in the Bengals' 31-23 loss to the Saints.
"Guys that are the playmakers, the guys that get the press and pub around here, they've got to make the plays," Anderson said.
Now the guy everyone forgot about until the last two weeks ago is the guy making the plays. Akili Smith may be running third in the quarterbacks derby, but he is No. 1 on the stat sheet and style points.
After watching Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks bob through the Bengals for 158 yards, Smith weaved through New Orleans for more than a third of the Bengals' yards in a quarter of play he brought them within two yards and five seconds of a chance at tying the game in the Paul Brown Stadium season opener.
Smith passed for 137 yards and a touchdown, and ran for 64 more to lead the Bengals in rushing and leaving his teammates shaking their heads.
"It was a show," Anderson said. "Just a show. He's playing with no fear and just doing his thing."
All indications have been that Smith's rehab from last year's severe hamstring injury has taken him out of the Opening Day mix. But his performance in three pre-season games, which includes two touchdown passes and seven scoring drives, have guaranteed him at least a an important backup role for this season and next.
"You can see he scrambles around and makes plays," said head coach Dick LeBeau. "I thought he led several key drives there in the end."
Scrambling out of a no-huddle offense, Smith led a 62-yard drive in which he wriggled for 11 yards and capped it off with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Chad Johnson with 2:24 left in the game that cut the lead to 31-23.
Then with 1:51 left, Smith did what they said he would do when they picked him third in the 1999 NFL Draft. He veered outside for a 10-yard gain, converted a third-and-10 on a 20-yard heave to a diving Ron Dugans, and steered the Bengals 67
yards to put them on the Saints' 2 with one play left. He got flushed from the pocket and ended up volleyballing an end-zone interception, but all Smith ended up doing was just making more fans.
"It was the funnest game I've been in in a long time," said Smith, who again worked with the second team. "You get in the game and there is pressure because the coaches want to win and the fans want to win and it's great. I wasn't satisfied with my performance. There were four or five passes I should have completed."
Smith hit just 14 of 28 passes and his yard per pass mark for the preseason is hovering between four and five. But he is moving the ball. He has proof, because he could hear the Saints' coaches and players yelling at him to slow down and yelling at each other to stop him.
Smith knows the irony. Brooks is the late round pick from the same draft class who has done what Smith was supposed to do. Use his athletic gifts and rocket arm to confound defenses and take his team to the playoffs.
"I've been watching and studying Aaron Brooks for a long time," Smith said. "He's going in the right direction. They've been to the playoffs. Yeah, I think I can definitely do what he's doing. But I've been on a roller-coaster ride with the Bengals."
At the moment, he is not all the way to the top of "The Beast," but he's giving "The Beasty," a pretty good ride.
"I think if you look statistically in the NFL, you have to have a good backup and a good third quarterback," LeBeau said. "You may have to use one in a series during a game, maybe for one game, possibly for three or four games. Quarterbacks end up all playing in this league."
Smith ended up playing Saturday night when the Saints went into a prevent defense and he took all but the last two yards that they gave him. He said the last play was a "choice route," headed to the back of the end zone, but the pocket collapsed on him as he scouted the secondary. He tried to run, found nowhere to go, stood back up, and blindly shot-putted a Hail Mary as he spun around. It got picked off, but like Anderson said, it was a show.
"I don't know what happened," Smith said. "I got blitzed and I tried to run it. Then I tried to come back and throw it because I knew I couldn't take a sack in that situation."
With one preseason game left before what looks to be heading to the clipboard and the No. 3 spot, Smith isn't sure what is next.
"(Thursday) might be the last you see of Akili Smith for this season," he said. "If that's what the coaches decide, then I'll be back next year to try and win the job."